Call them the Church’s “March Men,” whose feast days fall close together, just beyond the “Ides” of the month. They are saints of deep thought and decisive action who provide us with true models of masculine virtue. Yet for all they have in common as followers of Christ, Sts. Joseph and Patrick are not cut from the same cloth, and they have occupied very different places within the popular devotions of Catholics.
When I was growing up in New York City in the 1960s, St. Patrick had a cathedral and the parade along Fifth Avenue named for him. The Emerald Isle saint was larger than life and captured the attention of all revelers on his feast day, March 17, when everyone was “Irish,” regardless of race or religion. If St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday in Lent, the archbishop would announce that the Friday abstinence was suspended and we could eat meat (corned beef, that is).
St. Joseph, on the other hand, was the saint of the Italians who never seemed to move from the quiet corner of the church, where his statue stood holding a lily. Even in the Christmas season, his strong, silent presence at the Nativity was overshadowed by the brilliance of the Christ Child with Mary. There is no parade on his feast day, March 19, in spite of the fact that the Church categorizes it as a “solemnity,” a higher observance than the feast of St. Patrick. But there is celebrating for people of Italian descent, as well as those in Malta, Spain and the Philippines. His feast day is also Father’s Day in several Catholic countries, including Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Piety of the People
To put it in popular terms, St. Patrick was the patron of a happy life, when Irish eyes were smiling and feet were marching, while St. Joseph has been known for centuries as the patron of a happy death. He is believed to have passed away with Mary and Jesus at his bedside: the happiest death imaginable.
Although the Church has long recognized the unique role and high stature of Joseph as the spouse of Mary and earthly father of Jesus, official liturgical rites came later. Evidence of ardent devotion did not come until the 14th century, led by St. Bernardine of Siena, who composed prayers for his intercession. A liturgical feast in his name was proclaimed in the western Church in 1479, but it wasn’t until 1870 that Pope Pius IX declared him patron of the universal Church.
Pope John XXIII, who looked to St. Joseph as a model of purity and protector of the Church, added his name to the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) after the mention of the Blessed Virgin, giving liturgical prominence to him as the spouse of Mary. In 1989 Pope John Paul II released Custos Redemptoris (Guardian of the Redeemer), in which he identified the faith and obedience of Joseph as the link between the Old and New Testaments and emphasized his role as a perpetual model for Christians. “Our prayers and the very person of Joseph have renewed significance for the Church in our day in light of the third Christian millennium,” he wrote.
In contrast to the long tradition relating to St. Joseph, main-street devotion to St. Patrick goes back only a few centuries. The first parade for the saint took place not in Ireland, but in New York in 1762. The parade picked up steam less than a century later when it moved to Fifth Avenue.
Obedience and Action
St. Joseph has always occupied a quieter place in the Church and popular devotion. Not a word of his is recorded in the Bible even though he dutifully carried out his role as head of the Holy Family.
“St. Joseph to me is a model of humility,” said Rick Sarkisian, who has authored a number of books about the saint, including Not Your Average Joe and Tools From St. Joseph’s Workshop. “He lived a very hidden, very ordinary life as far as appearances went. Yet he rose to the heights of virtue and sanctity because he was obedient to God in all things. I think he’s the absolute best model for men.”
Women also look to the saint.
St. Teresa of Avila had a powerful devotion to him, writing of St. Joseph in her autobiography, “To other saints the Lord seems to have given grace to help us in some of our needs, but of this glorious saint my experience is that he helps us in them all.”
Sister Josemaria DiMaggio of the Sisters of Life says she knows the power of his intercession. When Cardinal John O’Connor formed the new religious community in New York in 1992, he chose the Blessed Mother as the primary patron and St. Joseph as the companion patron.
“St. Joseph was a natural choice because he is a guardian and protector, very much what the Sisters of Life seek to be in the lives of pregnant women who have nowhere else to turn,” said Sister Josemaria.
She also recounts a more earthly benefit of St. Joseph’s patronage. When one of the community’s cars was worn out, she placed the picture of a new vehicle under the convent’s statue of St. Joseph. “One day I told the sister who was in charge of the cars that I was praying to St. Joseph for a new one. She said just that day my prayer had been answered because a man from Buffalo had donated his car to us. The timing was perfect.”
While all we know of St. Joseph comes from what is written of him in the New Testament, most of what we know of St. Patrick is from what he wrote about himself in his Confession, composed in fifth-century Latin. “I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many …” he begins in humble style.
In his own words, Patrick tells of growing up in the dying Roman culture of Britain, being kidnapped to Ireland by pirates and cast into slavery. At God’s word, he makes a daring escape to the coast to board a boat headed back home. Rather than plot revenge, Patrick devoted himself to the salvation of the Irish, going to Rome and returning to Ireland as a bishop. How brave he was to set foot upon the land of his slavery with no weapon but the sword of the Gospel.
This is the true Patrick of history we all should have in mind as the bagpipes play and the line of march begins on March 17.
But both saints were men of great action, daring and obedience. On the angel’s word, Joseph took Mary for his wife, and then led her on the rugged road to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Then obeying the angel again, he fled to Egypt with Mary and the Child. He returned to Nazareth when he was told by the heavenly messenger that the danger had passed. This is the Joseph we remember on March 19.
Brian Caulfield is editor of the website FathersforGood.org,
an initiative for men and their families by the Knights of Columbus.